When you’re the son of a governor, the great-grandson of the world’s richest man, and the heir to a massive fortune, you don’t really need to lift too many fingers to get by in life. Nonetheless, plenty of wealthy heirs attempt to carve out their own legacy—but it doesn’t always end well.

Set to someday inherit a piece of the Rockefeller fortune, Michael Rockefeller could have taken a role on the Standard Oil board of directors and raked in cash, but he wanted more. Instead, he took on a non-oil-related role, pursuing a different passion all the way to the ends of the Earth… and lost everything, including his life.

Realistically speaking, Michael Rockefeller had the good life laid out before him: inherit part of the family fortune, manage family assets on the board of Standard Oil, work hard, and grow old. But he had greater ambitions—and they would up costing him his life.

Carl Hoffman via The Daily Mail

Despite being the fifth son of Nelson Rockefeller, the then-governor of New York, as well as the great-grandson of the robber baron John D. Rockefeller, Michael was more of a camera-and-paint guy than a pen-and-tie guy. In other words, he pursued art instead of business or politics.

NY Daily News

Just before Michael graduated from Harvard in 1960, his father—an avid art collector—launched the Museum of Primitive Art. It featured works from non-Western artists, like the Aztecs and Mayans, and this enthralled Michael…

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Determined to help his son follow his passions, Nelson placed Michael on the museum’s board of directors. The young Rockefeller seized the opportunity, but this still wasn’t enough for him.

According to a Harvard classmate, Michael “wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.” He knew just where to look for it, too: then-Dutch New Guinea, a portion of the Papua region of Indonesia.

Wikimedia

The 23-year-old contacted the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology and, taking their advice, organized a team to visit, study, and collect art from the region’s Asmat tribe. As he soon discovered in detail, this journey would be a far cry from the wealthy life of Manhattan.

Guilbert Gate/ Smithsonian Magazine

After arriving in the village of Otsjanep, Michael was met with hesitation. While the Asmat had interactions with outsiders in the past—interactions Michael may have wished he studied—those meetings were rare.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Still, while visiting, he did his best to fit in and assimilate, and for the most part, he managed to do so. He obtained wooden masks, shields, spears, and other artifacts from the locals, and all seemed well. The differences in backgrounds, though, couldn’t be ignored.

Michael observed that in Asmat culture, it was the norm to engage in rituals that involved drinking urine and eating the remains of your wartime enemies. Engaged with the people and their culture, he didn’t notice the sidelong glances some of the Asmat cast towards him…

Michael left the island, but he wasn’t finished with his work there. The visit to Otsjanep had been as culturally enriching as he’d hoped, so he made a plan to return the following year—and that’s when it all went haywire.

It was November 1961 when Michael and his team returned to Otsjanep. Or, at least, they tried to. They were just 12 miles from the shore when their ship capsized. Michael, treading water, saw the shore on the horizon and decided to swim for it.

That was the last anyone ever saw Michael Rockefeller. At least, no one from America. In the wake of his son’s sudden disappearance, Nelson sent airplanes and ships looking for him and even flew to New Guinea to help search for him.

LBJ Library

Eventually, however, the Dutch Interior Minister called off the search. “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive,” he announced. The official cause of death? Drowning. Still, some weren’t so sure about that…

The media ran wild with the story of the governor’s son, a Rockefeller heir, going missing. Talking heads posed theories on his disappearance that ranged from shark attacks to him living secretly, wealth-free, on the island as a member of the tribe. The truth remained hidden for decades…

But, years later, National Geographic reporter Carl Hoffman wanted the truth. Although he was just a year old when Michael disappeared, he had long been fascinated with the infamous mystery. So, Carl traveled to Otsjanep himself and began to uncover the truth.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Claiming to be studying Asmat culture, Carl overheard—through his interpreter—islanders discussing an American tourist who’d been killed decades earlier on the island. Carl asked who this tourist was.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Interestingly enough, the islanders were eager to spill the beans. With little prodding, they told Carl all about the day an American washed ashore—the day they killed Michael Rockefeller.

Carl Hoffman via The Daily Mail

In fairness, the Asmat claimed the killing was justified. To understand why, they offered some context. Three years before Michael first visited them, Dutch officials had invaded Otsjanep in order to quell a tribal civil war that had erupted on the island. It didn’t go well.

Due to a misunderstanding, these Dutch colonialists ended up firing on the Asmat tribe, killing four of their leaders in the process. Years later, when Michael washed ashore exhausted, guess who he first encountered?

When Michael reached the shore of Otsjanep, he’d come face to face with the sons of the war leaders murdered by the Dutch soldiers. Whether it was fear or anger that drove these Asmats to kill Michael, they wouldn’t let the chance for revenge pass.

The aftermath, as Carl Hoffman described in a book he wrote on the subject, was brutal: the Asmat scalped him, ate his brain raw, cooked his flesh, and used his bones for tools. They drenched themselves in his blood. As they saw it, they had restored balance to the world.

Still, the Asmat had seen guns, thanks to the Dutch colonialists. They’d seen helicopters, thanks to the Americans. Had word of their killing gotten out, the tribe feared they would have been wiped out. So they resolved to keep Michael’s killing silent.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Whether the story happened like this is difficult to know. Most of the islanders told Carl they’d heard this one passed down for years, but it remains unconfirmed. Some have suggested that this was a fictional tale created decades ago to make the Asmat seem tougher in the face of impeding outsiders.

Still, one tribe leader claimed to have Michael’s skull amid his collection. And when asked what Michael had been wearing the day he died? The leader described the outfit perfectly…

Musee du Quai Branly / Scala / Art Resource, NY

So what became of Michael’s artistic visions? Most of the artifacts he collected on his initial visit to Otsjanep ended up in the (aptly named) Michael C. Rockefeller Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They’re still there to this day.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s a shame Michael Rockefeller met an untimely demise pursuing what he loved. Luckily, thanks to the museum exhibit, he can share his interests and passions with the rest of the world!

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